The 4 Elements & the Western Mystery Tradition

The 4 Elements & the Western Mystery Tradition
By: G.H. Frater P.D.R.
Numerous astrological and metaphysical books give the impression that the Elements are more fundamental than the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, because the Signs can be broken down into groups of four elements. Identification of the Triplicities with the four Elements appears, however, relatively recent: the Twelve-Sign Zodiac existed more than 1,500 years before Aries, Leo and Sagittarius became the Fire Signs.

Ptolemy makes no reference to the Elements in his writings on Astrology. He speaks of the trigons, or triplicites, but does not connect them with the Elements. He describes the planets in terms of the qualities hot. cold, moist and dry. Mars for example, is hot and dry, which, in the traditional system of correlation (see figure 1) , would correspond to Fire. Manilius and later Fimmicus refer to the four Elements in philosophical terms, as the basic components of the world and of humankind, but do not link them to astrological factors.

The link between the Elements and Astrology begins with the four humors of Hippocratic Medicine. The Hippocratic writings of the 6th century BC had already related the four humors to the qualities (see figure 1). By Ptolemy's time or just after the humors had been likened to the four Elements.

By the Middle Ages the planets had been allotted to the Elements. but the first references to Fiery, Earthy, Watery, Airy signs appear in the work of Nostradamus, so the matching of triplicites with Elements may be a product of the Renaissance. One German source from as late as 1495 describes Taurus, Aries and Virgo as Earthy Signs. Venus was also generally considered a Watery planet and Jupiter Airy, though neither planet rules a Sign now of those Elements.

Sources give inequitable accounts of the four temperaments: Fiery, Earthy, Airy and Watery.

Four Element Golden Dawn

Figure 1. The humors and reasons related to the qualities established in the Corpus Hippocrericum (5th Century BC) with the Elements and planets later attributed to them.

The notion that the universe is composed of the four Elements is by no means universal. Certainly the Four Elements play an important role both in the Indian tradition, and the European tradition derived from ancient Greece via Rome and Arabia. Whether the doctrine passed from West to East or East to West, or possibly came from a late Babylonian tradition and spread both ways, it forms no part of the known ancient mythological heritage of Mesopotamia.

The Chinese system employs five, and sometimes six Elements, with no Air, but includes Wood and/or Metal. Elsewhere a fifth element sometime transcends, unites, or gives birth to the usual four "Hindu aether" or the "alchemist's quintessence" in China all five Elements rank equal. The Orient uses a subtler, pentangular framework to view the elemental composition of the universe than the four-square vision of all points west. Sets of four, like the four directions, are common all over the world, but not the Western Four Elements, the four roots, as Empedocles called them, of the Western world's view.

The Elements, individually and collectively, have also provided a fruitful source of metaphor. Mythology has numerous elemental figures like the Watery Deity Okeanos and Tethys. The classical Greek Pantheon derived ultimately from the marriage of Heaven and Earth, Ouranos and Gaia. Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the Waters, and Hades the depths of the Earth. The Sumerian triad Anu, Enlil and Ea or Enki, ruled respectively sky, Earth and Waters. Marduk in Babylon, Hephaestos, Greek God of volcanoes, and the Persian Ahura Mazda are all Fire gods. The deification of the physical Elements embody the life principles which the Elements themselves symbolism.

By the 6th Century BC the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece were defining the nature of the physical universe, although earlier mythological connotations echo through their theories, with the Elements inspiring almost religious awe. By singling out one supreme Element from which the rest derive, some of these philosophers perhaps afford a glimpse of their own psychological inclinations. In Goethe's play Faust Part 2, set mostly in classical Greece, the philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras debate the relative power of Water and Fire. Goethe clearly sides with Thales' non-violent Water and Anaxagoras, the more violently-inclined proponent of Fire, fond of volcanic eruptions, suffers defeat. Goethe's own horoscope shows five planets and the Ascendant in Water.

The first mention of the four Elements in the West comes from the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras left no writings, and secondary sources of his life and teachings by later authors are often biased. Living in the mental climate of the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras is said to have studied in Babylon, perhaps the source of the doctrine of Four Elements. The Pythagorean world was composed of four Elements, four seasons, while life had four stages. In the following century, Empedocles first taught that each human being is likewise composed of the same four Elements. The Elements exist both without and within. They were later combined into systems incorporating the concepts of hot, cold, moist and dry with the four humors of Hippocrates.


The physical Earth underfoot is obvious, as Dr. Johnson demonstrated when outraged at Bishop Berkeley's proof of the non-existence of matter "I refute it thus!" he said, and kicked a rock! Earth is common sense; hard facts. The usual image of the Buddha, reputedly Taurean, has him seated on, and with one hand touching, the Earth, thus calling the Earth to witness the reality of his experience, which she does by trembling.

Earth implies a literal-mindedness: Jungian analyst James Hillman once remarked that people "out of touch" with the Earth are told to dig the soil, but we don't tell people who "lack Air" to fly in an airplane. Air is more subtle than Earth. The Greek philosopher Thales claimed supremacy for Water. Anaximenes for Air, Heraclitus, and as Goethe claims. Anaxagoras for Fire. None envisioned Earth as the first or most basic element. It remained for the alchemists to make solid matter their primary metaphor, starting with the prima materia and ending with the Philosopher's Stone. The early philosophers began at the other end, seeking to explain the solid in terms of some higher principle.

No matter how basic, Earth is the mysterious mother of all physical being matter and mother share the same etymological root. Earth is the dust we come from and go to, from which everything physical is spun, the source of all productivity, lushness, wealth and beauty. The Western Tradition identifies Earth with the Goddess, Gaia; Demeter, mistress of plant growth and material welfare. It became obvious to identify as Earth Signs half of those already characterized as feminine according to an ancient division by sex.

Earth also implies the inevitable limitations of physical existence, the birth into a physical body, despised by those with transcendental aspirations, and thus grossly undervalued by the alliance of Christian tradition and Aristotlean distinction between spirit and matter. Body and matter must be worked and subdued, planted in rows and built into solid structures. Aristotle and the Stoics after him, bearers of the astrological tradition, schematized the four Elements vertically with Earth at the bottom, then Water, Air, and at the top Fire implying thus a scale of values, The qabalistic scheme uses the same vertical orders. Earth lies at the bottom, the beast of burden and provider of goods, which overvalued leads to materialism and undervalued becomes dreary necessity and imprisoning flesh.Humble Earth came to be associated with Saturn, once the Great Mother, then as old Father Time, Lord of past time and memory. Of all the Elements only enduring Earth records time in rock strata and fossils.


Thales of Miletus held that the Earth floats on Water and that all originates from it. This view may have been derived from Babylonian traditions, which placed the Watery Deities Apsu and Tiamat at the beginning of all things. In the story of Eridu, Marduk builds a raft on the primeval Waters and a hut on the raft which becomes the Earth. In the Babylonian creation epic, Marduk creates Heaven and Earth from the Watery body Tiamat. Psalm 136 states that God "stretched out the Earth above the Water", while the Koran says that Water is the origin of all life. A Greek myth makes Okeanos and Tethys, two Water deities, the original divine parents.

This image of Earth emerging from the Waters, evokes the emergence of life from the sea, of the baby from the Watery womb, of Jungian islands of consciousness from the sea of the unconscious. It refers to the dimly-remembered past where there was no separateness, fitting the watery signs of the zodiac, and best the Moon's sign, Cancer. Water baptizes, like a second emergence from the womb. It refreshes us and it washes us clean.

Heraclitus likens life to a river into which we cannot step twice. Water, the element which most readily evokes impermanence, change, flux, instability. Verbs capture its essence better than adjectives or nouns: flowing, surging, merging, dissolving, sprinkling. It is sensitive to the slightest movement. Essentially chaotic and lacking inherent form it was less favored by the orderly Confucius, whose genius lay in perceiving and prescribing structure, and want of definition and its power to deceive the eye connects it with states confusion and psychosis.

To Lao Tzu, the mystical poet and philosopher of the Tao, however, "Highest good is like Water" because it is noncontentious and settles in the lowest spots, follows the path of least resistance, flows effortlessly into every available space and makes itself at home. Water might rather fill the role of lowest element for it is as deep as depth itself: sea-level is the bottom line from which we measure all geographical altitude.

Though there are some male Water deities, Water and moisture have mostly feminine associations, Lao Tzu's high estimation of Water goes with a philosophy which counsels us to "keep to the role of the female." Water moves downwards like Earth. They share the feminine, negative or yin signs of the Zodiac. Traditionally the Moon and Venus are moist.

Like the Watery Signs and their corresponding Houses, Water has often has deathly connotations. Heraclitus said "to the soul it is death to become water" and "it is delight, or rather death, to souls to become wet."


The Elements associated with the sky and its fiery stars, have been allotted to the masculine. The sexism of superior and inferior distinction derived from a value system which prefers the masculine above the feminine below, and judges height more desirable than depth, has by and large conferred greater value on the Elements of Fire and Air.

Most descriptions of astrological Fire stress its heating and burning power: ardor passion, excitability The fiery type became the choleric, described by Culpepper: "hasty quarrelsome ireful," etc. Fire is also light, a fact often forgotten in the age of electric light. Culpepper describes qualities more specifically Martian than fiery. Galen, on whose theories the system of temperaments is built took a different view, For him the choleric type enjoyed "acuteness and intelligence of the mind."

Mythology distinguishes different kinds of Fire, not necessarily the same distinction as that between light and heat: the Fire of sun and stars and sky gods above, the Fire that Prometheus stole: and the Fire from below the Earth, the devastating Fire of Haephestus or Vulcan. Though Haephestus fashioned the attributes of the Olympian pantheon on his forge, he did not rank very high. The Fire of Mars seems more akin to this second kind. Mars or Ares was the son of Hera, in origin an Earth goddess. Ares was conceived as an act of vengeance against celestial Father Zeus without his aid. He comes from feminine rage, from the Elements of below.

The loftier connotations of Fire, the Fire the Stoics had placed at the top of their vertical schema, had fallen from favor by the Renaissance. Only the more violent and male characteristics of Fire remained. Heraclitus had a lofty vision of Fire when he described it as the basic stuff the world is made of, meaning "the purest and brightest sort that is as of the ethereal and divine thunderbolt."

An ancient Greek tradition held the aether, the fiery substance deemed to brighten the sky, in especial reverence and many supposed that souls consist of this divine, heavenly Fire. The Babylonians held a similar belief. A corpse is cold because the fiery soul, the spark of life, has left it and returned to the stars.

If Fire means creativity, perhaps Prometheus' theft of Fire fits his role as creator of mankind from clay: he had the power to animate, to create life and soul. His gift of Fire to men gave them, too, creative powers. God, the biblical creator, likewise takes the form of Fire: He is in the burning bush (Exodus, iii, 2-3) and descends as Fire from Heaven to consume his sacrifice in the new temple (2 Chronicles. vii, I).

Zeus hurls thunderbolts of Fire from Heaven. When Semele pleads to see Zeus in his true form he reveals himself as Fire and thus burns her to ashes. Mars, Sol, and Jupiter are all considered fiery, the latter known as much for their light as their heat. Light is also a metaphor for consciousness, for which Jupiter and Sol strive.

Fire most readily corresponds to our notion of energy, as pulsing physical force and animal spirits or as divine creative principle. Perhaps thus they share the same ultimate nature.


Air suggests the principle of height. Astrological Air looks down on things from above, detached, in contrast to the personal and often deep involvement of Water, seeing things in perspective, with clarity and sharpness. It enables a broad overview, connecting it with the role of Jupiter. It offers a sense of freedom. From detachment can arise abstract thought in the pure realm of idea.

When Anaximenes, another 6th century BC Greek philosopher, declared that Air was infinite and divine, the principle from which all things came into being it seems that he regarded Air as "the breath of the world." Air shares with Fire, the other masculine element, notions of soul and immortality. The Greek Spirit, "pneuma", and Soul, "psyche", and the Latin "spiritus" and "anima" all etymologically mean breath.

Pneuma is the word used for the Holy Spirit which descends through the Air on the wings of a dove. Similar to the Sanskrit prana and Chinese chi it implies the life-giving and life enhancing force that enters the body with the breath. Prometheus in fact breathes life into his men of dust. Artists sometimes portrayed the soul as a butterfly (in modern Greek psyche also means Butterfly) leaving the lip of a dying person. How often to the winds blow from the lips of semi-divine beings, like a global extension of the breath of life.

Galen attributed to the sanguine or Airy type "simplicity bordering on foolishness." But later the Airy temperament took on superior qualities. In the 12th century, William of Conches identified Air as the element proper to man, distinguishing humanity from the beasts who consisted only of Fire, Water and Earth.

Animals presumably breathed then as now, but lacked souls. William believed all human beings were originally created with the blessed sanguine temperament. He felt that since the majority of people suffered from temperaments other than sanguine merely testified to mankind's degenerate state. Although Gemini, Libra and Aquarius were not yet firmly classed as the Airy trigon, they were represented by image of the human form and a man-made object rather than by images of beasts. In William's day, the sanguine or Airy person, good-natured. good-looking, cheerful and nearer to good, had the natal blessing of the Greater Benefice Jupiter.

Alchemy similarly implied that Air was the supreme element, connecting it with the final, most spiritual of the four phases of the opus, the sublimatio, the stage of the hieros gamos the holy marriage or ultimate conjuctio. Psychologically the sublimatio corresponds to the power of abstract purpose and meaning from concrete reality; to experience joy relief, bliss.

A partial explanation of the elevation of the Airy type lies in the doctrine of the four humors defined in the Hippocratic writings. Hippocrates, the great physician of the rich 6th century BC, identified four basic humors or bodily fluids. However, while yellow bile, black bile and phlegm were considered "surplus humors", blood was obviously a vital substance. Hippocrates had already begun tentatively to link physical characteristics to the psychological and moral realm, but it was Galen, in the 2nd century AD, who "emphasized more clearly than anyone else the direct causal connection between bodily constitution and character."

It was from Galen's work that the system of temperaments (krases or mixtures) developed, to traverse Arab culture before re-emerging in Europe during the Middle Ages, to then remain fundamental to medicine and medical psychology until quite recently. In each temperament one humor predominated, for example, blood in the sanguine type. Illnesses resulted from severe imbalances, and each humor had precedence of the four seasons. An individual suffering from an excess of blood was bled with leeches!

The four Elements, said by Empedocles to form the constitution of human beings, became identified by one of his followers, Philistion, with four qualities. Later they formed a different relationship by which Fire became hot and dry, Water cold and moist, and so on. By Galen's day they had paired with the four humors (see figure 1). At some point the planets joined the system, more or less in this schema.

Just as Fire and Air had vied with each other for pride of place, with Air victorious by the late Middle Ages, Earth and Water vied for the bottom rung "so that in the 15th and 16th century illustrations, the portrait of the melancholic frequently changed places with the portrait of the phlegmatic, sometimes one and sometimes the other occupying the third place." The separating "masculine" from "feminine" Elements, however, never blurred.


The Pythagoreans highly esteemed the number Four. The figure 4 basically forms a cross, and the cross or square naturally represent fourness. The square and cross are artifices of mindÛthere are no straight lines in nature because we live on a sphere. We live in the circle of our horizon on which we impose the four points of the compass to orientate ourselves. Two pairs of opposites make fourness. The square or cross in the circle forms a mandala, and figures of this kind seem universal: the cross of matter and the circle of infinity which comprise our planetary glyphs.

Groups of four come in many forms: the four Tarot suits. the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the four Evangelists, the four cardinal virtues, the four letters of God's name "the Tetragrammaton.

Plato, seemingly under the influence of Pythagoras, connected the number with the realization of the idea, represented by the number Three. In terms of astrological harmonics, David Hamblin has assigned the 4th harmonic similarly to the principle of manifestation. Complete and stable, the square-in-the circle mandala symbolizes wholeness and equal tension between opposites

Liz Greene draws an analogy between Jung's four typological functions of consciousness "thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition" and the four Elements. The opposites in this case are more opposed in nature than in the traditional map, where the linkage between Elements and qualities results oddly in Air corresponding to warm and moist. This fits Air as an extension of breath, though the climate at the time was unlikely to have enjoyed constantly warm, moist Airstream.

The connection of Air with the thinking function further suggests why Air is overvalued in the West. Indeed there is a tendency to connate or confuse pneuma or spirit with intellect in both the Western and Hindu tradition.

1. R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, Nelson, 1964, p.10.
2. G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge University Press, (2nd ed.) p. 89 ff.
3. Lao Tzu. Tao te Ching. Trans. D.C. Lau. Penguin, 1963 p. 64.
4. Lao Tzu. Op. Cit p. 85.

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